Published: March 5, 2019
In July 2018, Johanna McBrien became the executive director of the Dedham Historical Society & Museum (DHSM) in Dedham, Mass. McBrien, who has worn nearly every hat in the antiques business, from specialist at an auction house and researcher for a dealer to museum curator, scholar, educator and arts journalist, credits her family and upbringing for her extensive credentials. She grew up with “old stuff” in a family that cared about its history and often visited museums and exhibitions. She paired an undergraduate degree in art history from Boston University with a master’s degree from Winterthur, where her thesis was on the Portsmouth, N.H., craft community, making her the ideal person to help Brock Jobe with his research for his landmark book on Portsmouth furniture. McBrien’s resume includes stints at some of the most recognizable institutions and companies in the field: from Northeast Auctions and Christie’s to the Essex Institute and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England); she has also been integrally involved with museum boards and committees and she is a passionate speaker in the antiques field. Her tenure in Dedham began after she left Antiques and Fine Art magazine as its editor-in-chief, of which she was founding editor; she is now editor-at-large and still contributes to the magazine. Antiques and The Arts Weekly sat down with McBrien to see how she planned to write this new chapter in her life in Dedham.
What attracted you to Dedham?
The history and the opportunities. The town of Dedham today is just a fraction of what it was in the Seventeenth Century. Sixteen separate towns have been formed from the original 200-mile land grant. The society was founded in 1859 and has an incredible collection of material, from physical objects and works of art, to comprehensive archives, dating back to the 1630s. We have the largest publicly owned collection of Dedham Pottery, in addition to ceramics from the Chelsea Keramic Art Works, which was also founded by the Robertson family of potters. The historic value of our collections is recognized by other institutions, and we currently have several objects on loan to other institutions.
That sounds interesting. Can you tell us more about what is out on loan?
A silver box by local Arts and Crafts silversmith Katharine Pratt is in a current exhibit at the MFA, Boston. A bell made by Paul Revere for the Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham will be in a major traveling exhibition opening this fall, and one of the rarest of Simon Willard’s clocks – an astronomical shelf clock – will soon be on loan to the Willard House & Clock Museum, in Grafton, Mass.
What sets Dedham apart?
Dedham is one of the earliest towns in America, founded in 1636. And there are many of the nation’s “firsts” associated with Dedham, including the first man-made canal in the country – the Mother Brook – built in 1639. Dedham is also home to the oldest surviving timber-framed house in the country (circa 1640-41), the Fairbanks House. Our archives include material on the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, local families, industries, schools, churches, maps and so much more.
The society recently acquired a Seventeenth Century carved chest from the Vogel sale at Sotheby’s. What can you tell us about it?
This is really exciting and demonstrates our interest in continuing to add to our collections. We’re extremely fortunate and appreciative that a number of collectors and antiques dealers made it possible for us to acquire the chest. It is attributed to John Thurston, who trained local joiner/turner John Houghton. We’re now able to display two carved chests and two carved chairs with reliable connections to the same two joiners. It makes for a rare opportunity to compare known early pieces with one another.
How do historical societies engage their local communities, or within the larger area?
There are so many opportunities, such as working collaboratively with other local institutions, grass-roots community groups and schools. We have a terrific team with our educator/membership coordinator, Maryann Wattendorf, our archivist Rebecca Carpenter, and wonderful volunteers. A leading goal is to make history relevant. We want to see people of all ages learn more about their history and the neighborhoods they live in, both in the past and the present. We want them to think about who lived and worked in the town, where they came from, the future and to make connections relevant to their experiences.
Are there initiatives you have implemented, or plan to, that will realize these goals?
We’re increasing our outreach programs to the schools and want DHSM to be seen as an important educational resource in town. We’re also expanding exhibits, increasing social media channels and improving our website. We’ve met with a design installation specialist to discuss renovating/updating our gallery space and rebranding our institution. I’m fortunate to have a supportive board of directors along with a volunteer group, the Worthington Committee, that helps us with our important fundraising events. And that’s important; fundraising is necessary for what we want to do. I’m really optimistic about what we can accomplish when we’re all working together. I know my tenure at the DHSM is going to be fun and I hope to make a positive impact.
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